Egypt’s Real Speech Problem

Severing internet and cell phone lines means Egypt took a frightening step in censorship: All speech was washed out, not just the political fire. This YouTube video went viral before the plug was pulled, but apparently users inside Egypt cannot see it now. Iran tried to stop information flow the Green Revolution riots, but the images already had gotten out. China just shut down key sites during the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square but let other traffic continue. Twitter had been a primary way to organize Cairo protests and YouTube carried images of violence, just as was true 18 months earlier in Tehran. Cairo protests are now being called “Egypt’s Tiananmen Square Moment.”

Sure Twitter carries celebrity gossip as well as messages for great political change, as company founders pointed in their blog call for free expression. That means ultimately these social networking portals are just that …. portals. The revolution is not about Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. The revolution is about power, corruption, and human rights. Portals are not neutral entities because they are shaped by cultural forces. Regardless, they are the medium not the message. Eliminating the medium means eliminating all messages, all voices, all speech, from the banal to the divine, and the world has yet to express adequate outrage.

Iran was not able to operate fast enough to silence critics by shutting down key portals. Images of Neda Soltan’s murder on a Tehran side street traveled worldwide. It’s doubtful that Egypt’s attempt to shut down internet traffic will actually shutdown the protests. Al Jezzera continues to stream the demonstrations live. But Beijing still silences discussion about Tiananmen Square, more with fear than anything. Maggie Patterson of Duquesne University and I researched political social networking in Iran and China. When Google and China got into major clashes over government control last year, the company ran its search engine through Hong Kong, creating the opportunity for mainland Chinese to get information about everything from the 1989 massacre to Falun Gong. Few Chinese seemed aware of the possible access and those who were aware voiced fear of actually getting caught. Untold thousands died two decades ago in Beijing and the billion people most directly affected remain largely ignorant.

Let’s hope the Cairo protests do not actually become Egypt’s Tiananmen Square. Let’s hope that internet shutdowns do not become a copycat crime.

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